We love a good retro gaming book and this one is no exception. Game developer Konstantinos Dimopoulos has a PhD in Urban Planning, but why would this be useful? It’s useful if you’re going to produce an eagerly awaited retro gaming title detailing 45 wondrous cities we’ve visited in our gaming lives. It’s one of the most ambitious titles we’ve ever heard about so we tasked Adrian with sending over Konstantinos some questions to get to the bottom of it all…
You have a PhD in Urban planning and geography. When you started your education, did you always envision working in the gaming industry?
I remember being a slightly disappointed engineering student and being asked by a friend what I’d enjoy doing for a living instead of designing streets and calculating metrics for dams. I remember answering her something along the lines of ‘designing RPGs or video games’ and not thinking this was an actual, realistic option. So, to answer your question, no, I did not envision working in the games industry, but always thought it would be an exceedingly lovely thing to do.
How did you get the opportunity to use your very refined skills to enter the video game industry?
Having just finished my PhD, and having spent almost a decade teaching, studying and researching cities, I was sensibly planning on staying and working for the University for a quite while longer. I still love researching and teaching (and do both of these as often as possible), but when the 2009 financial crisis struck it all but wrecked Greece’s universities. In parallel to that a group of friends decided to start a small indie gaming studio. They knew I’d been writing about games semi-professionally for a while, and that I’d dabbled in game design and they asked me to join. Promptly, I did.
After Kyttaro Games failed to set the world on fire I assembled a rather excellent team brilliantly lacking a core progammer to work on a text-heavy, illustrated RPG set in a unique sci-fi city on the brink of revolution. This was the very first time I actually combined my background in urbanism with game design and it was immensely satisfying. The game was eventually put on hold –still not quite dead yet– but the idea for game urbanism had been spawned.
You now have over 10 years in the gaming industry as a game urbanist and game designer. Can you briefly explain what this role entails and give a brief overview of the some of the games you have worked on?
The first properly commercial game I worked on professionally was Droidscape: Basilica with Kyttaro Games. It was an iOS exclusive sci-fi puzzle game released back in 2013, and was after a year or so followed by its more action-oriented remake: the aptly named DroidArcade. I did most of the writing, testing, and level design for these games, as well as quite a bit of the game design and PR. Despite the many problems that Droidscape faced, it reviewed well and sold almost decently.
I take it though that this question was aiming more on my work as an urbanist in games. Well, I have worked on quite few games so far, and some of the non-NDAd ones include horror detective offering The Sinking City and its dread flooded city of Oakmont, the imaginary, mysterious city of A Place For The Unwilling, the urban planning in the forthcoming narrative-heavy game Lake by Gamious, ideas on the MMO urbanism of Seed, the urban environments and spatial organization of illustrated interactive fiction Cyberganked, systems for city builder Cyberpunk Cities and quite a few more.
As for the role itself being a combination of two incredibly rich and varied disciplines like urbanism and game design, it can entail almost everything. Every single project I worked on was radically different to every other. I have among (countless) other things created maps on paper, researched architecture, sketched city squares and parks, suggested mechanics, altered narrative and level designs, modeled streets, wrote detailed descriptions, provided engineering-type solutions, suggested wide geographies, played with procedural models, consulted on details, fixed mistakes, and designed city-wide economies.
Which classic titles do you personally view as having the best designed cities and most engaging city layouts and urban feel?
There are, thankfully, many game cities to love. Half Life 2 for example, a proper modern classic, features City 17 which is one of the most cleverly and efficiently designed cities in gaming, but I can easily go as back as Antescher from Ant Attack on the ZX Specturm, text only Rockvil from A Mind Forever Voyaging, the engrossing Hillsfar or even Terrapolis from BAT. I also do appreciate the way in which New Orleans was subtly reinterpreted for the original Gabriel Knight, the fantasy modernism of Rubacava in Grim Fandango, cyberpunk Los Angeles in Blade Runner, and of course the earlier Grand Theft Auto games and the groundbreaking Driver. Oh, and places like Silent Hill, Novigrad, or the incredibly detailed cities of the Shenmue games should also be mentioned.
To be fair though, and depending on one’s desired point of view, thematic preference, and personal taste there are dozens of excellent cities in gaming across most genres and eras. Places worth studying as well as enjoying.
The Virtual Cities Atlas looks incredible. Can you explain how you first got the idea to create this book and give our readers a quick summary of what to expect?
Finalising the idea was a rather slow process. Discussions on the book with my friend and visual artist Maria Kallikaki were going on for quite some time, before slowly deciding to begin working on the book, albeit on a very conceptual level. Then publishing house Unbound came along and actually suggested we work together to get the book done. From there things quickly picked up, an outline was drafted, the first cities were selected, and work began in earnest. When the book hit Unbound’s crowdfunding platform it proved to be unexpectedly popular and quickly hit its funding goal, and we both started working full time to get it done in time.
After more than a year of further extremely hard work every word is now edited, every map completed, and the book is getting polished before hitting the presses.
Readers should expect a detailed look at 45 of the most important and interesting virtual cities from the world of video gaming. Each one of those described from an in-universe point of view and presented alongside illustrations and an original map attempting to recreate how such a place would actually look. Every entry also includes a couple or more extra paragraphs on the design of the city discussed, and things game, level, and narrative designers could possible learn.
Expect to read about Novigrad from Witcher 3, Anor Londo from Dark Souls, Dun Darach, Midgar from Final Fantasy VII, New Donk City from Super Mario Odyssey, New Vegas from Fallout New Vegas, City 17, Mass Effect’s Citadel City, Dunwall, my beloved City 17, the ever evolving Kamurocho, The Long Dark’s Milton, and even the outrageously odd Sigil from Planescape: Torment.
You are covering 45 game cities within your book, including entries on Half-Life 2, (the aforementioned) Silent Hill, Fallen London and many more. How hard was it to select these particular areas and titles and what criteria did each city have to meet?
Narrowing them down to a mere 45 was tougher than expected.
Speaking of choice criteria, well, first of all every one of the cities included had to be a virtual place I loved and considered important. Of course spacing things out was pretty crucial too, as I aimed for this atlas to be truly representative of gaming’s cities. I thus tried to cover all major platforms including arcades, home computers, PCs, and consoles, all major genres including racing games and platformers, and all major eras. The earliest game presented in Virtual Cities was released back in 1983 and the latest in 2018. Oh, and I did make certain to feature all types of developers from indies to triple-A .
When do you hope to release your book and will it be available as both a hard-copy and e-book?
The official, announced publication date is September 2020. Backers be getting their copies a few months before that though.
Where are the best places to keep up to date with your game and projects?
I’d say probably my game-cities.com site, and my Twitter account at @gnomeslair. Other than that there’s Game Cities on Facebook, my medium articles and a very rarely updated old blog I’ve been maintaining since 2006.
You kindly shared on your Twitter timeline our recent interview with Sam & Max creator Steve Purcell. Why are you such a fan of his games and do you feel LucasArts were masters of creating such iconic and memorable worlds?
It was an excellent interview, and I’ve always adored the Lucasfilm / Lucasarts adventure games, with “always” roughly translating to ever since my parents bought me a copy of Maniac Mansion for my birthday. Love the graphics, the pacing, the quality of the puzzles, the writing, and the fact that there was always space for humour. To this day Monkey Island 2 remains one of my favourite games of all time.
What other exciting projects are you currently working on?
Well, I’ve already started planning a new book while doing some final stuff for Gamious’ Lake, and working on a couple more personal projects. One of these might involve a 1920s city tailor made for detective stories, and the other might be more of a historical city builder with a rather unexpected twist. Nothing actually announce-able just yet, but I do hope to have some concrete news soon.
Oh, and I am also waiting for a some very exciting contract gigs to get started, but, as is usual, such matters take time and nothing has been signed just yet. I am of course still writing my CityCraft column for the excellent Wireframe magazine, and teaching about virtual cities and level design at SAE Athens.
Do you have any advice to anyone looking to enter the video game industry, especially to those people who may not have the obvious linking qualifications and skills?
Know your stuff and know some game stuff. Read widely. See movies, play all sorts of games, travel as much as possible. The more experiences you have the more you can put into your art. Also being technically competent is pretty crucial too. Definitely make sure you can communicate with a game dev team. Probably be able to sketch and write modestly well. Know that there really isn’t a single way of doing this, and that wearing many hats –even some you might not particularly like– is often required.
If you could share a few drinks with any video game character, who would you choose and why?
Another toughie. Probably Gabriel Knight though. Tim Curry’s fake New Orleans accent is simply perfect. Failing that, Jade from Beyond Good and Evil will do brilliantly. She is one of the very few protagonists we should probably go along great; her and Manny Calavera that is, but I’d have to be dead to meet him, and am not in a hurry to be.